Echoes of Early Irish Influence in Anglo-Saxon Literary Landscapes

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Echoes of Early Irish Influence in Anglo-Saxon Literary Landscapes

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Title: Echoes of Early Irish Influence in Anglo-Saxon Literary Landscapes
Author: McMullen, Albert Joseph
Citation: McMullen, Albert Joseph. 2015. Echoes of Early Irish Influence in Anglo-Saxon Literary Landscapes. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
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Abstract: This study traces the cultural interplay between Irish and Old English literary landscapes. Combining an ecocritical approach to reading representations of the landscape with a comparatist perspective, each chapter shows that the landscape and the natural world were not only static motifs, but that they allow for the observation of literary influence. The first chapter investigates the political use of the landscape in Irish and Anglo-Saxon saints’ Lives. I argue that the anonymous author of the Life of Cuthbert was following a common Irish hagiographic practice of using place-names to claim churches, monasteries, or lands for the writer’s monastic foundation. Furthermore, Bede was aware of this agenda when he rewrote the Life of Cuthbert some twenty years later and consciously removed many of the place-names that localize Cuthbert’s miracles and ministrations from the text. The second chapter compares the use of the natural world in the Old English Boethius to early Irish cosmological treatises. The Old English translator diverges from Boethius in the amplification of cosmological details (e.g., information about the universe and the elements) that have distinct analogues in early Irish sources. The third chapter examines Grendel’s mere in Beowulf as a reflex of the bog of Germanic pre-Christian worship and as a place which draws on imagery common to insular sources pertaining to hell. Reading the mere as an overlay landscape that places pagan past and Christian present in apposition, I argue that this layered landscape is analogous to landscapes in early Irish poetry and saga. In my final chapter, I explore the paradisiacal landscapes presented in Guthlac A and The Phoenix. These descriptions closely parallel representations of paradise in Irish tradition, especially in contemporaneous Irish poetry. Additionally, like early Irish writers, the Old English poets appropriate the landscape of Eden to reflect and emphasize the spiritual state of the monastic. While scholars have often noted connections between early Irish and Anglo-Saxon literature—though few concerning the representation of the landscape or the natural world—this project is the first study to address the influence of early Irish literary landscapes in Old English works. As such, my dissertation holds the potential to redefine ways of thinking about the transmission of influence between these two early medieval cultures. I show that the landscape and the natural world loomed large in early insular literature in ways that have gone unrecognized, while also providing a model to track the paths of literary influence. My investigations revise the received wisdom about Anglo-Saxon literary landscapes, while contributing to a body of scholarship concerned with connections between early Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England.
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